THE STRING OF PEARLS by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest
XIV Tobias’s Threat, and Its Consequences
Perhaps one of the most pitiable objects now in our history is poor Tobias, Sweeney Todd’s boy, who certainly had his suspicions aroused in the most terrific manner, but who was terrified by the threats of what the barber was capable of doing against his mother, from making any disclosures.
The effect upon his personal appearance of this wear and tear of his intellect was striking and manifest. The hue of youth and health entirely departed from his cheeks, and he looked so sad and careworn, that it was quite a terrible thing to look upon a young lad so, as it were, upon the threshold of existence, and in whom anxious thoughts were making such war upon the physical energies.
His cheeks were pale and sunken; his eyes had an unnatural brightness about them, and, to look upon his lips, one would think that they had never parted in a smile for many a day, so sadly were they compressed together.
He seemed ever to be watching likewise for something fearful, and even as he walked the streets, he would frequently turn, and look enquiringly round him with a shudder, and in his brief interview with Colonel Jeffery and his friend the captain, we can have a tolerably good impression of the state of his mind.
Oppressed with fears and all sorts of dreadful thoughts, panting to give utterance to what he knew and to what he suspected, and yet terrified into silence for his mother’s sake, we cannot but view him as signally entitled to the sympathy of the reader, and as, in all respects, one sincerely to be pitied for the cruel circumstances in which he was placed.
The sun is shining brightly, and even that busy region of trade and commerce, Fleet-street, is looking gay and beautiful; but not for that poor spirit-stricken lad are any of the sights and sounds which used to make up the delight of his existence, reaching his eyes or ears now with their accustomed force.
He sits moody and alone, and in the position which he always assumes when Sweeney Todd is from home—that is to say, with his head resting on his hands, and looking the picture of melancholy abstraction.
‘What shall I do,’ he said to himself, ‘what will become of me! I think if I live here any longer, I shall go out of my senses. Sweeney Todd is a murderer—I am quite certain of it, and I wish to say so, but I dare not for my mother’s sake. Alas! alas! the end of it will be that he will kill me, or that I shall go out of my senses, and then I shall die in some madhouse, and no one will care what I say.’
The boy wept bitterly after he had uttered these melancholy reflections, and he felt his tears something of a relief to him, so that he looked up after a little time, and glanced around him.
‘What a strange thing,’ he said, ‘that people should come into this shop, to my certain knowledge, who never go out of it again, and yet what becomes of them I cannot tell.’
He looked with a shuddering anxiety towards the parlour, the door of which Sweeney Todd took care to lock always when he left the place, and he thought that he should like much to have a thorough examination of that room.
‘I have been in it,’ he said, ‘and it seems full of cupboards and strange holes and corners, such as I never saw before, and there is an odd stench in it that I cannot make out at all; but it’s out of the question thinking of ever being in it above a few minutes at a time, for Sweeney Todd takes good care of that.’
The boy rose, and opened a cupboard that was in the shop. It was perfectly empty.
‘Now, that’s strange,’ he said; ‘there was a walking-stick with an ivory top to it here just before he went out, and I could swear it belonged to a man who came in to be shaved. More than once—ah! and more than twice, too, when I have come in suddenly, I have seen people’s hats, and Sweeney Todd would try and make me believe that people go away after being shaved and leave their hats behind them.’
He walked up to the shaving-chair, as it was called, which was a large old-fashioned piece of furniture, made of oak, and carved; and as the boy threw himself into it, he said,-
‘What an odd thing it is that this chair is screwed so tight to the floor! Here is a complete fixture, and Sweeney Todd says that it is so because it’s in the best possible light, and if he were not to make it fast in such a way, the customers would shift it about from place to place, so that he could not conveniently shave them; it may be true, but I don’t know.’
‘And you have your doubts,’ said the voice of Sweeney Todd, as that individual, with a noiseless step, walked into the shop—’you have your doubts, Tobias? I shall have to cut your throat, that is quite clear.’
‘No, no; have mercy upon me; I did not mean what I said.’
‘Then it’s uncommonly imprudent to say it, Tobias. Do you remember our last conversation? Do you remember that I can hang your mother when I please, because, if you do not, I beg to put you 1/in mind of that pleasant little circumstance.’
‘I cannot forget—I do not forget.’
‘Tis well; and mark me, I will not have you assume such an aspect as you wear when I am not here. You don’t look cheerful, Tobias; and notwithstanding your excellent situation, with little to do, and the number of Lovett’s pies you eat, you fall away.’
‘I cannot help it,’ said Tobias. ‘Since you told me what you did concerning my mother, I have been so anxious that I cannot help—’
‘Why should you be so anxious? Her preservation depends upon yourself, and upon yourself wholly. You have but to keep silent, and she is safe; but if you utter one word that shall be displeasing to me about my affairs, mark me, Tobias, she comes to the scaffold; and if I cannot conveniently place you in the same madhouse where the last boy I had was placed, I shall certainly be under the troublesome necessity of cutting your throat.’
‘I will be silent—I will say nothing, Mr Todd. I know I shall die soon, and then you will get rid of me altogether, and I don’t care how soon that may be, for I am quite weary of my life—I shall be glad when it is over.’
‘Very good,’ said the barber; ‘that’s all a matter of taste. And now, Tobias, I desire that you look cheerful and smile, for a gentleman is outside feeling his chin with his hand, and thinking he may as well come in and be shaved. I may want you, Tobias, to go to Billingsgate, and bring me a pennyworth of shrimps.’
‘Yes,’ thought Tobias with a groan— ‘yes, while you murder him.’
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK